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January 10, 2013

Column | Korky Koroluk

Modular construction future looks bright

Productivity has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Make your workers more productive, conventional wisdom says, and your economy will thrive.

That may well be true, but productivity gains are hard to come by. Conservative attitudes among both labour and management often tend to favour the status quo. Prefabrication of building elements is not new- nor is modular construction. But although there hasn’t been significant growth in those methods, that may be about to change.

For a start, China’s Broad Group made the news two or three years ago by using prefabrication to put up a 15-storey hotel in just six days. Then, a year later, the same company used prefabrication to put up a 30-storey hotel in 15 days.

Just over a month ago, a 10-storey building in India went up in 48 hours, not including interior finishing.

The builder, an entrepreneur named Harpal Singh, and his company, Synergy Thrislington, used prefabricated components that were assembled beforehand in a nearby factory.

Korky Koroluk

As construction began on a Thursday morning, Singh said that all components had already been manufactured — doors that were pre-fitted, wiring, sanitation, ventilation ducts. With everything ready to go, and with specially fitted transport vehicles at the ready, it the job became one of assembly, which happened in one immense, 48-hour burst.

There are probably lessons to be learned there. Certainly those projects will spark interest in prefabrication in North America.

In fact, Forest City Ratner Cos. (FCRC), a developer-builder in Brooklyn, N. Y., is about to begin construction of what it claims will be the world’s tallest modular building — an apartment building rising 32 storeys.

It will rely on prefabrication of components and assembly of modules in a nearby factory. To achieve that, it has entered into a type of collective bargaining agreement that is new to the New York City area, and perhaps new to the unionized sector in North America.

The labour pact came after bargaining with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which formed a new division to accommodate the project. In fact, a trades council spokesman said the new division and the new type of collective is a response to an industry that is moving toward more modular construction.

The agreement is a major departure from the norm, because the skilled trades on the site will be formed into crews with all necessary trades included in each. Each team will assemble a complete apartment unit. That means that, although the modules will be built in a factory, it’s not assembly-line work.

An FCRC spokesman said that “everybody is touching everything within a unit, including the curtain wall, and each crew is responsible for an entire unit.” The 350 self-supporting living units will be built in a nearby factory, then moved to the jobsite and stacked inside a frame braced with structural steel.

FCRC estimates that will move about 60 per cent of the work from the jobsite to the factory floor.

The firm also estimates the cost will be 20 per cent less than a conventionally constructed building, and will take four to six months off a construction schedule that would normally be 18 months.

Before the final go-ahead was given, there was a lot of prototyping of building elements, and a lot of bargaining — not only with the unions involved, but with city building officials to make sure that the permitting and approvals processes would go smoothly.

Building Information Modeling was used to check thousands of small elements that have to fit into tight spaces.

If all goes as planned, FCRC expects to use the same techniques to build several more apartment buildings in the area. And FCRC also expects that it will be spinning off a company to work as a third-party modular building fabricator.

The company, it seems, thinks that there is a future in modular construction, and in the savings it promises.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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